Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Mazal Tov, Mr. Mayor?

When I saw the recent article about the birth of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's first grandchild, it brought mixed emotions. The NY Times reported that,

Ms. Bloomberg and her boyfriend, Ramiro Quintana, welcomed a son, Jasper Michael Brown Quintana, at 4:34 p.m. on Tuesday in New York City. He weighed 7.7 pounds. 
I figure that it's pretty safe to assume that Mr. Quintana is not, in fact Jewish (although these days, you really can't know!). While reading the article, I made a small mental note lamenting yet another Jewish child born to a non-Jewish father. Great news for the mayor, and his daughter and her boyfriend (the issue of marriage not even being an issue any longer). But not such great news for Am Yisrael.
But then, with a quick Google search, I discovered that the Mayor's daughter is herself not Jewish. This left me with two questions:
  1. What does this small news item say about the Jewish people as a whole, given that Mr. Bloomberg is the inagural recipient of the Genesis Prize, (ridiculously dubbed the "Jewish Nobel Prize") bestowed upon his as a model of “exceptional people whose values and achievements will inspire the next generations of Jews.” Really? What if the next generation - and the one after that - isn't Jewish at all? Who is the prize going to inspire?
  2. Secondly, and perhaps tragically, when a Jew celebrates the birth of a non-Jewish grandchild (or child) for that matter, do we wish him Mazal Tov?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vaera - Do We Believe in Miracles?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vaera - Do We Believe in Miracles?

In order to convince Par'oh of his authenticity, Aharon famously cast his staff before the king and it turned into a "tanin" (we discuss the identity of the creature in the shiur). Was Par'oh convinced? Hardly. Should he have been? Do miracles really make us believe in God? Should they?

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Seeing the Goםd - A Thought for Parshat Va'era

It was almost inevitable.

Even before the streets were plowed, media figures and government officials began calling for an investigation into the "failures" surrounding the recent blizzard that blanketed a good chunk of Israel. True, many people lost power, and thousands were stranded. But, from my point of view, we did pretty well: the roads were shut down appropriately, saving many, many lives; the power company crews worked around the clock to restore and repair power lines that buckled under the heavy weather.

And yet, we complain. Somehow, too often, our intuition is to see the negative, rather than appreciating the positive that exists in every situation. Our task – and responsibility, is to overcome this inclination to kvetch, and to try to appreciate and grow from our struggles. According to Rashi, this is precisely the message that God conveys to Moshe Rabbeinu.

By all accounts, things aren't going well.

Rather than rescuing the Nation of Israel from bondage, Moshe has only made things worse, as the people must now gather the straw necessary to construct the bricks themselves while still fulfilling their old quotas. Recognizing his failure, Moshe complains to God.
God, why did you deal negatively with this people? Why did you send me? Since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has made things worse for this people; and You have not saved Your people.' (Shemot 5:22-23)
God responds by telling Moshe that He would, in fact, redeem the nation as promised. But then God adds:

'I am the LORD; and I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov, as God Almighty, but by My name Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay I did not make known to them.
What is the nature of this minor lesson about the Avot? What is the difference between the two different names of God, and what is God trying to communicate to Moshe?

Rashi, in his second answer to these questions (on verse 9), quotes the Midrash explaining that God's message was a direct response to Moshe's complaints.

Said God [to Moshe]: I yearn for those who are lost but not forgotten!…Many times I revealed Myself to them, and they never asked me, "What is Your name?" And you said, "[When they ask] what is His name, what should I tell them?"

When Avraham wished to bury Sarah and could not find a grave until he was compelled to purchase one at great expense; When they complained to Yitzchak about the wells that he dug; When Ya'akov was compelled to purchase the plot of the field in order to pitch his tent –they did not wonder about My attributes! And yet you said, "Why have You made things worse?"
It's a chilling message.

How often do we "wonder" about the struggles we endure and immediately lapse into "complaint" mode – whether we're talking about the snow, our jobs, our kids' education?

I believe that these verses also carry the key to unlocking a successful Aliyah. After all, the subject under discussion here is the redemption of the Jewish Nation and their ultimate arrival in the Holy Land.) 

Aliyah, especially for people making Aliyah by choice, represents a degree of hardship.  Moving to the Holy Land requires sacrifice. Sometimes you really do feel like you've taken two steps backwards. And yet, God powerfully relays to Moshe the message that our attitude is critical. We cannot immediately complain when things don't go our way. Rather, we must permit ourselves to see the good, the blessing, and the potential that lies ahead.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

We've Got a Lot of Work to Do - A Tiny Picture from a Secular Public School in Israel

As part of our recruiting program at the Orot College of Education, I run a monthly seminar with a group of young women doing their Sherut Le'umi service with an organization called "Zehut". These young women join "Mercazim L'ha'amakat Yahadut" - "Centers for the Strengthening of Judaism" - and they teach Jewish ideas, themes and lessons in secular public schools across the country. (In fact, this program is so important and significant that the governement recently budgeted an additional 9 million shekel to expand and grow.)
Once a month they come to Orot for a Beit Midrash program, where they have a shiur on a Torah subject, and then a pedagogical lesson geared towards giving them tools to use in the classrooms.
Last night, before I gave my Torah shiur to the second group, I took a few minutes to ask them what lectures they felt would most benefit them in the field. They gave a number of excellent suggestions, including how to identify learning-disabled children, creating appropriate lessons for preschoolers, and understanding basic issues of child psychology. After a brief discussion, I started the shiur.
After the session, a young woman came up to me with a request: "Rabbi, there's another topic I'd like you discuss."
"Sure," I told her. "What is it?"
"What do we do when we're trying to teach Judaism, but some, if not most of the kids in the school are not Jewish?"
"Yes," another girls said to me. "Last week we were discussing the Tenth of Tevet, and a girls raised her hand and said, "I'm not fasting because I'm Christian."
I wasn't really ready for the question, which probably shouldn't have surprised me all that much. Many neighborhoods aren't predominantly Jewish in Israel in many cities, and while I'm sure many schools cater to specific populations, it stands to reason that a good number of public schools cater to the entire population, not just the Jews. Moreover, they encourage multiculturalism and understanding that would seem totally normal in the United States.
"Do you want to see what I mean?" the first girl asked me.
She took out her cellphone, and showed me this picture:

How do you teach Jewish values in a class  - and a public Israeli elementary school with a display like this?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Modern, Tragic Aspect to the Tenth of Tevet

I spent last weekend as a scholar in residence for Tzohar at Congregation Ohav Tzedek in Merrick, Long Island. It was a very, very quick trip. Shabbat morning, I spoke about the fast of Asarah B'Tevet. Here's a part of what I said:

A Postmark from Tel Aviv to the Tenth of Tevet
While most people (hopefully) realize that the we fast on the Tenth of Tevet to commemorate the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem in the First Temple Era, there’s an aspect to the Tenth of Tevet – a much more modern aspect, that many Jews are unaware of.
In Israel, the Tenth of Tevet is also known as יום הקדיש הכללי – the day of General Kaddish. (see here too) This is because on the 27th of Kislev, 5709 – in 1948, the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel declared that the fast of the Tenth of Tevet would serve as a commemoration for all those Jews killed in the Shoah who had no one to say Kaddish for them, or whose Yahrtzeit wasn’t known. If you had lost a loved one and didn’t know when they had died or where – or even whether they were buried, this became your Yahrtzeit.
Yet, the story, of course, goes much deeper. The Jewish State was in the midst of a great debate about the identity of the date which would commemorate the Holocaust. The secular community wanted the date to be the 14th of Nissan – the day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. There’s only one problem with that date; it’s the day before Pesach. (Small problem.) The religious community – including most of the major poskim of the time – wanted there not to be a special, dedicated day at all. They felt that the best, and only day to commemorate the destruction of the Holocaust was Tisha B’av.  So, the Chief Rabbinate hoped that the Tenth of Tevet, which no one really related to anyway (but we still fast on), would become the de facto Yom Hashoah, and serve as a good compromise that everyone could live with.
The Original Chief Rabbinate Proclomation
The effort failed. The Knesset leadership, when it couldn’t have the 14th of Nissan, insisted on having the day at least during the month of Nissan – which it is today. (Israelis refused to have just a Yom Hashoah – a day of Holocaust. They insisted on focusing on the Gvurah – the uprising and the desire to fight back…) Chareidim don’t commemorate Yom Hashoah at all, as they consider it against the Halachah to institute a day of mourning during the month of Nissan. Nor do they mark the Tenth of Tevet as Yom Hakadish Haklali. Only a small fraction of the Religious Zionist community marks the Tenth of Tevet in this way.
Thus, the day that we spend fasting to commemorate the beginning of the destruction of the First Temple has now become a symbol not of our unity, but our inability to agree even on simple thing like the date to recite Kaddish for those who perished in the Holocaust.
We – the Jewish people – are standing at a crossroads today. What will the Jewish State that we leave to our children and grandchildren look like? Will we learn to find a way to create a meaningful balance between the desire for a truly Jewish State – a land enriched and defined by the Jewish values it represents, or will indifference, antagonism and apathy cause the unraveling of the very fiber of what makes Israel so historically, Jewishly unique?

At lunch afterwards, someone pointed out to me that today, educators in the Chaireidi world in America have placed a new emphasis on teaching the Holocaust specifically on the tenth of Tevet. Whatever the impetus for this effort, it's certainly laudible and important. I guess in the end, the rabbanut got its way, at least in Brooklyn.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Chief Rabbinate's Decision to Forbid Visiting the Temple Mount (Again) Really Does Matter

Kipa is reporting that the new Chief Rabbis, Rav David Lau and Rav Yitzchak Yosef, recently reaffirmed the decades-long psak halachah forbidding Jews to ascent to Har Habayit. The reasoning behind the prohibition is beyond the scope of this blog post, but dates back to the time of Rav A"Y Hakohen Kook, who explicitly forbade any efforts to asend to Har Habayit. (I recently heard a shiur from Rav Mordechai Greenberg on the underlying reasoning of Rav Kook, and at some point I'll try and post it. Just not now.)
Here's the psak:

The reaction of many on the left wing of Religious Zionist community will be to yawn, and see this as yet another example of the growing irrelevance of the Chief Rabbinate, who seems to want to reaffirm that we're still living in the past, that nothing has changed, blah blah blah. Moreover, this reaffirmation will do nothing to stop those people who visit Har Habayit from continuing to do so, as they are leaning on solid halachic shoulders which permit visiting very specific areas of the Temple Mount, and feel that their position is based on solid archaeological studies.
So, if non-religious people were going anyway, and religious people were relying on a different psak, why then did the Chief Rabbis issue their "reaffirmation"? Does it really matter?
Actually, it does matter a great deal.
For those following Knesset committee proceedings, for months the Knesset has been discussing the issue of the rights of Jews to pray on Har Habayit. (If you're looking to waste a couple of fun minutes, you can watch MK Ahmed Tibi freak out at one of these meetings - something he does quite regularly.) Legally, Jews are supposedly allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, but practically, the police prevent people from doing so, and arrest anyone who makes any type of Jewish religious declaration whatsoever. After Rabbi Yehuda Glick was banned from visiting and leading groups to Har Habayit, he later learned that the "crime" he committed which got him banned was the recititation of the Prayer for the State of Israel and the Prayer for the Safety of the Soldiers of the IDF. Those provocative acts got him on the "Do-Not-Visit-Temple-Mount" list, which led him to begin a hunger strike, which led the police to back down for now, and the saga continues.
Not surprisingly, with the recent resurgence of the Religious Zionist Bayit Hayehudi, the issue of the freedom of Jews to pray on the Temple Mount has taken on greater significance in the halls of the Knesset. In the committee meetings, Rav Eli Ben Dahan, the Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs, asked the Chief Rabbis to change the official stance on the law, in order to allow his office to proceed with the proposed legislation. At the same time, he made it clear that while he personally doesn't think that it's a problem for Jews to visit and pray on the Temple Mount, he would not support pushing legislation to that effect against the wishes of the Chief Rabbis. So, while Jews continue to visit and silently pray on the Temple Mount (under the watchful eye of the police), they have really been hoping for legislation that would force the police to stop harrassing them and allow them to pray in peace (at least until the Arabs started rioting). Now, with the recent reaffirmation of the Chief Rabbis, the Bayit Hayehudi will not act against their will and push legislation they feel is against halachah (although in truth, the Chief Rabbis were also against the Tzohar law).
So don't expect Chabad to open a shtiebel and tefillin stand on Har Habayit anytime soon.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Miketz - The Search for Yosef and a Pile of Shoes

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Miketz - The Search for Yosef and a Pile of Shoes

The Midrash, picking up clues from the text, suggests that Yosef's brothers, arriving in Egypt, look for much more than just food. What were they looking for, and how hard were they looking?

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Restarting Ourselves on Chanukah

My computer wasn't working – at least not well. It started to freeze up, and was taking far too long to load even simple programs. When this happens, as it does every so often, there's a fix that usually solves the problem. I simply restart the computer, and often the problem goes away.

It seems so simple: restart. Somehow, the computer puts things back the way they should be, and things work again properly. If only life were so simple. After a fight with my son/wife/co-worker – wouldn't it be wonderful if we could simply turn things off, and restart – and have everything work the way it should?

This idea of renewal and restarting applies, not only in the world of computers, but in our daily lives as well. For a long period of time, I was on a diet called SugarBusters!. The essence of the diet is: no refined sugars or grains, no processed food, and no corn or potatoes. It's pretty all-encompassing. People, when they heard about the diet would ask me: "Are you going to eat that way for the rest of your life?" (The answer, as it turned out, is 'no.') I would tell them, "I have no idea if I'm going to eat this way for the rest of my life. But I know that I'm going to eat this way today."

Each and every day during Shacharit, we refer to God as המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית – "He who renews in His Goodness each and every day the act of Creation." Each day isn't a continuation from the last day. Rather, each day is a new day; a new creation, disconnected from yesterday.

We can find this idea in the halachot of Chanukah as well. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 675) writes that,
הדלקה עושה מצוה ולא הנחה...לפיכך, עששית שהייתה דולקת כל היום שהדליקה מערב שבת למצות חנוכה, למוצאי שבת מכבה ומדליקה לשם מצוה.
The lighting [of the Chanukah lights] established the mitzvah, and not the placing [of the lights]…for this reason, an ember that remained lit for the entire day [of Shabbat] that was lit on erev Shabbat for the mitzvah of Chanukah – after Shabbat one must extinguish [the light] and relight it for the purpose of the mitzvah.
At face value, if the purpose of the lighting of the Chanukah candles is פרסומי ניסא – spreading the miracle of Chanukah – then what difference does it make when I lit the candles? Why should it matter whether I lit the candles today, yesterday, or three days ago? Yet, the Mishnah Berurah explain that,

ואינו מועיל מה שהדליקה אתמול לשם מצוה דכל יומא ויומא מילתא באנפי נפשה היא
The lighting from yesterday for the sake of the mitzvah does not help [for today] – for each and every day stands alone.
While the light may be the same, we are still required to perform the act of lighting each and every day. My actions from yesterday do not suffice. I must restart, relight and rekindle in order to properly perform the mitzvah.

The same rule applies to the rest of our lives.

Some of the very best things we do are repetitive. Yet that very repetitiveness can lead to a sense of staleness and boredom. Even the lighting of the candles itself can become repetitive. We all know remember the excitement of the first night; the exuberance with which we sing Maoz Tzur. The second night is still pretty good. But by the fifth and sixth nights, even the lighting of the Chanukiah takes on a tone of drudgery.

That's precisely the point at which we need to "Restart." Reinvigorate, and relight ourselves with the passion of the light of Chanukah.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Cantors' Choice

In the course of some work that I do for Tzohar, I often have to research into the history of North American Jewish commuities. Thank God for Google. I don't think that this work would have been possible otherwise.
Recently, I came across the online digital archives of the Jewish Floridian newspaper whch covered the South Florida Jewish community. In addition to finding a nifty tidbit about my father, a"h (who grew up in Miami Beach), I came across the following ad. I think it speaks for itself. After all, who wouldn't want to drink the Cantors' choice of coffees? Times have truly changed.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Thank You to the Phillipines

By now, we've all read about the terrible typhoon that devastated the Phillipines killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands. You've probably also heard about the delegation from Israel that joined a good number of other countries that have sent aid - either in supplies or in personnell, to help the devastated victims of the storm. And, like you, reading about the great work Israelis are doing in the Phillipines gives me a sense of pride. People need help, and we sent our best to help them. That's what we do. But thinking about it for a while, there's an additional aspect of Israel's work in the Phillipines. Here in Israel, many of the people who care for the elderly in Israel are from the Phillipines. It's so common, in fact, that the term for "Home Healthcare Worker" is "Phillipini", as in, "I need to find a philipini for my mother who broke her hip." It's not just that people from the Phillipines need the income and are willing to travel far from their homes to earn a living. That is, of course, true. But, from what I've seen from afar, the Phillipinos who do this kind of work are really good at it. They have the perfect temperment to help elderly people with their basic needs with patience and dignity. So, as I watch the pictures of the IDF doctors and nurses giving medical care to Phillipino children in need, it's not just an act of Chessed. It's a way, ever so subtly, of saying "Thank you." By taking care of their children, we thank the Philipino people for their devoted care of our parents and grandparents.
עולם חסד יבנה.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeshev - The Avot, Keeping the Torah and the Land of Israel + Bonus Old JN Parshah piece too!

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayeshev - The Avot, Keeping the Torah and the Land of Israel

A minor detail in the story of Yehudah and Tamar leads us to the question of whether the Avot kept the entire Torah, the famous position of Ramban, and then the larger argument over whether Jews fundamentally were intended to keep the Torah outside of the Land of Israel. After all, according to Ramban, Yaakov Avinu didn't think so.

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JN Bonus!
Here's an old piece that I wrote on Vayeshev for the Detroit Jewish News in 5765:

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Trip Down Memory Lane with the Detroit Jewish News

The Detroit Jewish News just released an online digital archive, containing every article of every page of the publication. I, of course, searched for myself. It's a terrific walk down memory lane. Sometimes, I can't really believe I wrote what I did. I'm proud I wrote it, but somewhat surprised at myself. (And, looking back, good for the JN for publishing it.) Take, for example, this Torah piece.

That prompted an outraged reader to write this letter:

Which, in turn, prompted this vigorous defense by YIOP member Steve Katz. Way to go Steve!

Ah, the memories...

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: When To Say No to Tzedakah

Gil Student shared a video produced by Hamodia, chronicling the sad, lamentable overwhelming poverty rampant in the Chareidi world. While the video didn't really ask people to give money, it's safe to assume that this is implied. Yet, I humbly suggest that while simple rachmanut (compassion) demands that we give to the food and social service organizations giving vital services to these families, this video, if anything, must strengthen our resolve not to give money to chareidi yeshivot and educational institutions that are promoting (and forcing) this lifestyle of poverty upon yet another generation of youth. The only way that these institutions will change, is if they realize that the money just isn't there to keep going. I strongly encourage everyone who reads this to do the following: When you open the door or recieve the envelope, and the meshulach asks you for a donations for a yeshiva, educational institution, or kollel, ask a few simple questions:
Does your yeshiva teach basic subjects (in Israel it's called limudei libbah), critical to the childrens' ability to gain employment later on? If it's a yeshiva gedolah, ask whether the yeshiva itself has a job training program for young men leaving the system, and, most importantly, what percentage of young men who leave their yeshiva find gainful employment outside of the chinuch system? Does the culture of your yeshiva promote work and gainful employment, or does it teach the young men that those who leave the yeshiva and kollel are sellouts, second-class citizens who simply couldn't make it.
If the answers to these questions are not satisfactory: they don't teach even the most basic skills, and make no effort to encourage education and employment, then don't give them any money. At all.
Because, contrary to the sob story they're selling you, by giving them more money you are actually an accomplice to the future suffering of the children being raised in a system that will trap them in poverty, with no real way out.
I want to be clear: I'm not against kollel. I learned in kollel. But I am against a kollel system that completely rejects any other type of secular learning and training. Let the guys go to kollel. But then encourage them both during and after the kollel years to study and get real degrees so that they can then enter the workforce and earn a decent living.
This sad saga has so many tragic victims. First and foremost, of course, is that of the children and families suffering. But even more frustrating is that this catastrophe is entirely unnecessary. Chareidim aren't going away. Their numbers continue to grow, and the chareidim are projected to grow to more than half of the Israeli population by 2050. Yet, as a whole, the chareidi leadership's refusal to encourage higher education and gainful employment has damned an entire generation - literally hundreds of thousands - to abject poverty. And, at least for now, the jobs are there. Information technology jobs exist, and chareidim would get them, because they many have a wonderful work ethic (see the number of hours they learn in kollel), and are often willing to work for less than their non-chareidi counterparts. But they don't have the basic skills and education to get those jobs that would enable them to buy their children the vegetables and braces they so badly need.
The second, less-considered tragedy of this saga takes place not in Israel, but in America. American chareidim, by and large, have represented a significant portion of olim. Yet, if I were chareidi living in the States I'd watch that video and say, "I'm never moving there." And, if I were a parent with children learning in Kollel in Israel, I'd make sure that once those two or three years ended, my children came back to Brooklyn, or Detroit or whereever. Just not Israel.
After all, who wants their grandchildren to be the face of the next Hamodia video?
Children suffer. Families suffer. The State of Israel suffers, because its economy is dragged down by a sector mired in poverty. The Jewish people suffer, as American chareidim refuse to consider moving to a country where their children will be condemned to abject poverty.
This is kavod hatorah? Sorry, I just don't see it.
So when the meshulach comes, if his institution refuses to teach that work is not a "four letter word", put your money where your mouth is: Just say no.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Audio Shiur - Parshat Vayishlach - Meek, Weak Jews

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayishlach - Meek, Weak Jews

Rashi famously notes that Yaakov prepared to deal with Eisav in three ways: by sending gifts, by preparing for war, and by praying to God. Yet, while we see the gifts and prayer, where's the preparation for war? This glaring omission tells us a great deal about how commentaries viewed the notion of Jews fighting in a war, and just how differently we think today.

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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeitzei - Rachel and Leah

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayeitzei - Rachel and Leah

The text describing Rachel, Leah and their marriages to Yaakov raises more question than answers. The Midrash, with its classic version of the story, addresses some of the problems. But not all of them. 

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Support Yehuda Glick - Especially This Week

Glick on his Hunger Strike
Many of you may not have heard of Yehuda Glick. I certainly hadn't before I came Israel. Before I moved here, I hadn't heard of him. Yet, he's a leading figure in the fight for the rights of religious Jews to visit and pray on the Temple Mount, and serves as the Executive Director of the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation.
In recent years, the issue of the rights of Jews to visit and pray on the Temple Mount has been gaining serious traction. Mekor Rishon, the leading Religious Zionist newspaper, dedicates an entire page of its main section to issues related to the Temple Mount, and increasing numbers of Jews, mostly religious, but some not, question why Har Habayit remains perhaps the only place in Israel where a Jew is not free to pray to God. It's a really good question.
Personally, I've never myself visited the Temple Mount. In another post, I'll dissect the issue more thorougly. Suffice to say that while many are against visiting the Temple Mount for halachic and hashkafic reasons, there are clearly opinions which permit it (and if it's permitted, then not visiting Har Habayit is troubling). Yet, even if I myself have refrained from visiting Har Habayit, that in no way diminishes my respect and support for Glick's right to do so.

If you follow Glick's Facebook feed (which I recommend following), you learn quickly that he's not a violent fellow. He believes passionately in the importance of visiting Har Habayit and of having a Jewish presence on Har Habayit, but he's careful not to violate police laws or ordinances while doing so.
Recently, the police decided to arbitrarily ban him from visiting the Temple Mount, labeling him as a security threat. The police made the decision without any due process, or, for that matter, without any formal hearing or judicial process. They get to decide, without any legal backing, who can and cannot visit the Temple Mount. Aside from the absurb religious discrimination, this represents an abuse of police power that cannot be overlooked.
When he exhausted the resources and friends who spoke out on his behalf, Glick felt compelled to protest this situation with a hunger strike, which, as of today, enters its fifth day.
This week we meet Har Habayit for the second time (the first being Akeidat Yitzchak), when Yaakov Avinu dreams his fateful dream and declares, אכן, יש אלוקים במקום הזה ואנוכי לא ידעתי - "behold, there is Godliness on this place, and I didn't know."
Now we know. Whether we visit it or not personally, Har Habayit, and not the Kotel, is the holiest site in Judaism, and we must demand our rights not only to visit the Temple Mount, but to pray there as well.
Spread this message. If you're a shul rabbi or educator, speak about this issue. Contact officials in Israel (and your local Israeli consulate in the Diaspora) and ask why Rav Glick is denied his basic civil (and for that matter, human) rights. Spread the word, so that hopefully soon Rav Glick will once again be allowed to visit Har Habayit, and will therefore do something each of us has already done each day for the past five days: Eat breakfast.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Toldot - Blind to the Truth

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Chayei Sarah - Peripheral Biblical Figures

I began the shiur by playing the attached video. Chazal and the commentators provide a wide range of explanations to a simple question: Why did Yitzchak lose his sight? Their answers, from the obvious to the surprising, can teach us a lot about what we see, don't see, and sometimes don't want to see.

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Rabbinic Competition and the Tzohar Law

An old rabbi joke you might have heard:
A man walks into the rabbi's office to talk. After exchanging pleasantries, he finally gets down to business.
"Rabbi," he says, "I want you to make me a Kohen."
"Make you a Kohen?! We don't do that!"the rabbi responded.
"I thought you might respond in this manner," the man said, reaching into his pocket and removing his checkbook. "So I'm prepared to make a ten-thousand dollar donation to the synagogue in exchanging for your helping me."
Ten thousand dollars was a lot of money, and the shul certainly needed it, but the rabbi held firm.
"Sorry, but I can't help you."
A week later, the man was back.
"Rabbi, I really want you to make me a Kohen. And I've thought about it, and I'm willing to up my donation to a fifty thousand dollars, straight to the synagogue's general fund. Will you do it?"
This time, the rabbi took a moment. He thought about it, but decided that he couldn't go through with it.
"Sorry," he told the man, "But I just can't help you."
A week later, the man returned once again.
"Rabbi," he said. "I truly need to be a Kohen. I'm willing to up my offer to a hundred thousand, straight to your discretionary fund, no questions asked. Please, I'm begging you."
A hundred thousand dollars. The rabbi lost himself in thought for a few moments, and then said softly, "I think I can help you."
"Terrific!" the man said excitedly, as he begun scribbling out the check. "Wonderful!"
"But there's one thing I need to ask you." the rabbi interrupted. "I don't understand. Why is it so important for you to be a Kohen?"
"Simple," the man explained. "My grandfather was a Kohen. My father was a Kohen..."

Throughout my years in Detroit, I appreciated the fact that I never felt the need to troll for members. On one hand, I certainly felt a responsibility and obligation to increase membership. My salary and livelihood depended upon it. At the same time, our shul occupied a unique space in our community. In contrast to the other shuls in the neighborhood, the Young Israel of Oak Park really is the only Modern Orthodox large shul in the Oak Park community. If you were looking for that kind of shul, we were there for you. My job, as I saw it, was to make the shul the most welcoming, inviting shul that it could be - which would hopefully drive membership.
Most of my friends, I think, were in the same position.
Others, though, found themselves in neighborhoods with multiple shuls competing for the same members. Sometimes this would result in a "cold war", with shuls subtly competing for members by offering attractive programming and even financial discounts. At times though, this process degenerated into outright pilfering, as rabbis openly courted members of other shuls. (They would, of course, deny it, claiming a prior "relationship" that they wished to nurture. But pilfering happens, and it isn't pretty.)
What I have never heard of, at least in recent decades, is a case where an Orthodox rabbi relaxed his halachic standards in order to increase his membership. Perhaps I'm naive, but we're really not in it for the money. Most rabbis I know could have gone into other careers which pay far better, but entered the rabbinate out of a sense of idealism and devotion to Klal Yisrael. So the suggestion that rabbis would relax their standards for their own financial gain rings hollow to me.
I mention this in light of the recent Tzohar Law which gained final passage in the Knesset this week. The Tzohar Law says simply that instead of having to register to marry in the municipality in which one lives, a couple can register to marry in any rabbinate of their choice.
Before the law was passed, standard regulations from the Chief Rabbinate require a couple to register for their marriage license in the local rabbinate in which they reside. These rabbinates are essentially deregulated and determine their own procedures and halachic guidelines. Certain rabbinates refuse to register converts of any kind; others will not permit most Zionist rabbis to conduct weddings. No less important is the quality of the service and hours of operation.
Over the past decade, this reality has been a significant and major factor prompting many halachically Jewish Israeli couples to choose civil marriage in Cyprus or Prague over navigating the challenging bureaucratic maze of their local rabbinate. Moreover, many couples simply forgo formal marriage, preferring to live together without bothering with the hassle of Chuppah and Kiddushin. Without the benefit of Chuppah and Kiddushin and a kosher Ketubah, the children of these couples will face great challenges in proving their Jewish status in the future. This reality, combined with hundreds of thousands of halachically Jewish Russian immigrants who cannot prove their Jewish status, has created a wave of assimilation that threatens the Jewish nature of the State of Israel.
In a meeting in late August, the new Chief Rabbinate decided to publicly oppose the proposed law, citing unspecified halachic concerns associated with the law. Last year, then Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger came out strongly against the law, claiming that it would "dramatically increase the number of mamzerim in the Jewish people."
Chareidim have long argued that the law would encourage people to seek out the most lenient rabbinate, and encourage rabbis to permit inappropriate kulot. I find the entire argument troubling. Essentially, this argument stipulates that rabbis can't be trusted, and will race to the "bottom" chasing after the most possible marriage registrations.
Really? Do we suspect the local rabbinates to such a great degree that we fear that they'll compromise halachah for financial gain? Why then do we trust them to perform the weddings in the first place? I truly never fully understood the Chareidi opposition to the law, especially since Chareidim never registered themselves with local rabbinates, and have no use for them. My suspicion is that they fear that people will shy away from utilizing them for weddings, preferring to hire rabbis that more fit their "style" or outlook. Essentially, the law will cause rabbis to lose wedding fees (which they were not legally allowed to charge) to competing, more accessible rabbis.
That's a legitimate fear.
While I don't believe that rabbis should or would compete in the area of halachah, they most certainly should compete in the areas of service. I hope that this new law will encourage local rabbinates to compete to be more accessible, more open, friendly and positive. I hope that they'll attract couples based on accessibility and ease of use. I hope that they'll begin to think about ways to make the marriage ceremony more spiritually meaningful, so that they're friends attending the wedding will ask them, "Who was that rabbi? We want him to marry us as well."
That happens at Tzohar weddings all the time.
Rather than harm Judaism, this law will go a long way towards making traditional marriage friendlier and more engaging.
And that's a good thing for the Jewish people.

Daylight Savings Time in Israel

For years, Daylight Savings Time was the subject of a huge fight in the Jewish State. The Interior Ministry, under the control of chareidi parties, routinely rolled the clock back on the Saturday night before Yom Kippur, in order for the fast to end an hour "earlier" than usual. This, of course, prompted outrage from secular Israelis who claimed that the Chareidim were advancing their own religious agenda at the expense of the broader society. Each year, they'd get into a fight, promise to "study" the issue, and then, after exhaustive study, keep the status quo. Welcome to Israel.
This year things finally changed. Actually, they changed last year - but the change only went into effect this year. Instead of changing the clocks in September, we kept Daylight Savings time for an extra six weeks, and only changed the clock this past Saturday night. And...the sky hasn't fallen. There weren't widespread reports of famished Israelis breaking their fasts at ten minutes before 7:00pm on Yom Kippur.
The one place Israelis felt the change was on our cellphones and computers. For some reason, my phone couldn't adjust itself properly, and was consistently an hour off. For the last month, my online calendar was sometimes an hour off, sometimes not. I wondered why they couldn't just reset the clocks to change later, like everyone else. Is it that hard to change the clocks on the system?
I never really understood the Yom Kippur issue. Last I checked, the fast lasts for twenty-five hours. If you start the fast at 5pm, it lasts for 25 hours, and if you start it an hour later, at 6pm, as we did this year, it still lasts for 25 hours.
In fact, I kind of like the longer Daylight Savings Time.
I liked driving home at 5:00pm when it was still light, instead of having night fall before my commute home. I liked making it home for Ma'ariv, which I now cannot do. I enjoyed that extra hour of daylight in the afternoon, instead of "wasting" it in the morning.
True, the sun rose significantly later in the morning (about an hour), making life more challenging for those who schedule requires them to get up early and daven. It can be challenging getting the kids out of bed when the sun hasn't fully risen. And some rabbis complained that it was pitch black when they got to shul in the morning. (The government did pass regulations allowing men to arrive late to work if they needed to daven later than normal though. What a country!)
I don't think that the extra daylight saves any energy, by the way. I just like it better.
But, I would make one suggestion. Instead of ending standard time at the end of March, I think that we should wait until after the first night of Pesach. The Pesach Seder is a ritual observed by the vast majority of Israelis. On that evening, there's a legitimate halachic argument to begin the Seder as early as possible, to include the children for as long as possible. It really does make a difference whether you start the Seder at 7:00pm or at 8:00pm.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Chayei Sarah - Peripheral Biblical Figures

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Chayei Sarah - Peripheral Biblical Figures

In Chayei Sarah we meet two peripheral biblical figures - Eliezer and Dvorah, the wet nurse of Devorah. What do we really know about these people? More importantly, what roles did they play in the development of the Jewish people, and what can we learn from them?

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Should Monetary Considerations Play a Factor in Deciding Whether to Make Aliyah?

Everyone knows the old joke: "How do you make a million dollars in Israel?" Answer: Come with two million.
Ha. Ha. It's not a funny joke, and actually not really true anymore, at all. But the joke highlights the very real financial concerns that prevent many a potential oleh from realizing the dream of Aliyah. They rightly wonder: should they make the move, irrespective of financial concerns, or should their money-worries play a major role in what is undoubtedly a challenging decision? Netziv, based on the actions of Avraham Avinu, makes a thoughtful suggestion.
Following God's commandment of לך לך, Avraham abandons his homeland for the Promised Land. Yet, according to the Netziv, the journey took place in two distinct stages. The Torah tells us,
 וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָם, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלָיו ה', וַיֵּלֶךְ אִתּוֹ, לוֹט; וְאַבְרָם, בֶּן-חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים וְשִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה, בְּצֵאתוֹ, מֵחָרָן. וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת-שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת-לוֹט בֶּן-אָחִיו, וְאֶת-כָּל-רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ, וְאֶת-הַנֶּפֶשׁ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן; וַיֵּצְאוּ, לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן, וַיָּבֹאוּ, אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן. (בראשית יב, ד-ה)
So Abram went, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him; and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came. (Bereishit 12, 4-5)
Netziv notes the unusual order of the verses. We first read that Avram went – and Lot went with him, and note his age upon departing Haran. Then, in the very next verse, we learn that Avram took Sarai, Lot, and all of their possessions. Is this not at least a partial repetition of the first verse?
To answer these questions, Netziv explains that these two verses describe not one, but two legs of the same journey. And, while we normally translate the phrase, וילך אברם כאשר דבר אליו ה'  to mean, "And Avram went, as God had spoken to him" (meaning that Avram follow God's commandment), Netziv explains the phrase differently, suggesting that the Torah is telling us not what Avram did, but when he did it.
אלא משמעות כאשר דבר תכף ומיד כשדבר ולא המתין על הכנה הדרושה לזה וכדי שלא יהיו לו עכובים ממכירת הנחלאות וכדומה יצא תכף ומיד ולוט הלך עמו והניח אשתו ושארי בני ביתו בעיר עד שמכרו הכל והוה נתעכב מעט בדרך ומאחר שכבר יצא מעירו והחזיק בדרך ראו אנשיו להכין הכל ובאו כולם אצלו ואז כתיב ה ויקח אברם אז הי' אברם בראש וכל הטפלים כמש"כ
Rather, the meaning of the words כאשר דבר is "immediately and without delay" – that [Avram] did not wait to complete the necessary preparations. So that there would not be unnecessary delays from the sale of his property and similar matters he left immediately, and Lot went with him. He left his wife and the other members of his household in the city until they sold everything, and he tarried a bit on the road. Yet, since he had already left the city and begun the journey, his people saw fit to make the necessary preparations, and then they all joined him. Then it is written, ויקח אברם "And Avram took".
According to Netziv, Avram followed God's commandment immediately, refusing to wait for the sale of his property. Only after he had already left his home did he then slow down enough to wait for his entourage to attend to his affairs, sell his property, and join him on the road.
Yet, Netziv wonders: If Avraham received a direct divine commandment to move, should he not have simply dropped everything and traveled immediately to the Promised Land without delay? Why did he allow himself to be delayed by the mundane matters of his household?
...אחר שהחזיק בדרך וידע שלא יהיה לו מניעה מגוף הליכה שוב ראה לחוש לאבידת הממון וכל היקום - אע"ג שהוא נגד הזריזות לגמר המצוה, מכל מקום גם שמירת נכסים הוא ענין ראוי לחוש...משא"כ בתחלה שהיה משער שאם היה מחעכב בשביל שמירת הנכסים היה יכול להיות מניעה לעיקר הליכה, על כן הוחלט אצלו לצאת תיכף ומיד ויעבור עליו מה. וזה כלל גדול מה שיש ללמוד בדרך המצות.
…Once he established himself on the road, and knew that [monetary matters] would not prevent him from leaving at all, then he saw fit to concern himself with the loss of his money and all of living things – even though this contradicted the value of alacrity in completing a mitzvah, nonetheless maintaining one's property is also a matter of genuine concern…this is not true with regard to the beginning of the journey. He estimated that were he to tarry due to concern for preserving his wealth, this could possibly represent an obstacle to traveling at all. Therefore, he decided to leave immediately, and whatever would happen, would happen. And this is a great rule that we should apply to the fulfillment of the commandments.
Is money an issue when we approach the fulfillment of mitzvot, and especially the challenging mitzvah of Aliyah? It depends. Money worries are indeed real, genuine concerns, and should be considered – even if they delay the fulfillment of the mitzvah. But they cannot be so overriding that they prevent us from fulfilling the mitzvah at all.
So, if you're thinking about Aliyah, and worried about money, first of all, you're not alone. Most Olim, contrary to popular belief, don't have two million dollars in the bank (far, far from it). Financial concerns can and should be part of one's planning when charting the path to aliyah, and, as Avram demonstrated, can even be a legitimate reason to delay the fulfillment of this critical mitzvah.
On the other hand, finances should not and cannot keep us from fulfilling Aliyah, or any other mitzvah. When financial concerns become so great that they're holding us back completely, then we must follow in Avraham's footsteps and, in the words of Netziv, "leave immediately, and whatever happens, happens."
We don't abandon logic and ignore the important factor of money when considering Aliyah. But we can never forget the critical element of faith, and trust that if the Holy One commanded us to fulfill a mitzvah, even if we can't see it, His guiding hand will lead us to success, even when we ourselves cannot see how.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Things I Never Knew About Rav Avraham Tzukerman, zt"l

Rav Avraham Tzukerman, zt"l
This Religious Zionist press reported today on the passing of Rabbi Avraham Tzukerman, a major figure who played a prominent role in the establishment of the Yeshivat Bnei Akiva system, the driving foundation of the entire Religious Zionist establishment in Israel today.

In my relatively young age, I never really knew Rav Tzukerman, although it's clear just from reading about him that he was a major figure who affected many, many people who never even heard of him - like myself.
I'd like to share some nuggets from one of the more meaningful pieces I came across called, "Things You Didn't Know About Rav Avraham Tzukerman".

1. He decided to study in yeshiva at age twelve, after hearing a powerful talk from a young yeshiva student lamenting the fact that too many parents exert all of their energies in the goal of providing financially (but not spiritually) for their children. (It's amazing how a single talk can affect a person - and thus affect countless others. Too often we minimize the power of oratory to affect change.)
2. He studied in Pinsk. He and his friends at the yeshiva would daven shacharit at the local train station among the gentiles in order to teach themselves to overcome the attribute of shame and develop their attribute of courage.
3. His pillow at the yeshiva was wet from tears shed from homesickness.
4. The students at the yeshiva once turned to the Rosh Yeshiva in Pinsk, the famed Steipler Gaon, to expel a student who they considered insufficiently serious. The Steipler told them: "Just as when you sit for many hours learning one's pants wear thin, so too, for someone who spends an extended amount of time in yeshiva, something happens in his heart, even if it's not externally evident." The Steipler's answer made a deep impact on Rav Tzukerman's educational philosophy.
5. After he made aliyah with his father, he studied at the Navardok yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Even though they recognized his Zionist views, they allowed him to remain in the yeshiva as long as he agreed not to share his reading material with other students.
6. He used to say, "A person must worry about his own spiritual needs, and his friend's physical needs."
7. When people would seek advice from him about contentious issues, he would never tell them what to do, but instead would say, "This is what I would do."
8. He would follow the psak of the Aruch Hashulchan, as was the Lithuanian practice, noting that the Mishnah Berurah was hardly known in Lithuania.
9. He would say, "In all of  the yeshivot, in general they invested heavily in the individual, the illuy (genius). It was he who they drew close, and he who they tried to develop and nurture into a Torah giant. What does a yeshiva [such as this] by its nature wish to achieve? [It wants] to raise Torah giants (Gedolim). We, in our yeshiva, did not want to foster the individual, but instead we wished to foster the community. For this reason, there were times when a young man studied in the yeshiva whose abilities were not great, and did not make great strides in his study. But he [was] a young man imbued with fear of Heaven; a good young man; a young man who worried about the community and wished to witness the glory of the community and contribute in community frameworks. It was this student who we fostered, it was he who we raised, because in him we saw blessing. In this way, the yeshiva fostered and raised a communal structure, for it wished to foster communal life."

Yehi Zichro Baruch - May his memory be blessed, and may his soul be bound up in a bond of eternal life.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayera - Avraham and Sodom - Living Apart or Living Within?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayera - Avraham and Sodom - Living Apart or Living Within?

Why didn't Avraham choose to live in Sodom, and try and save the city with his chesed? Should we live apart, or try to live together and influence from within?

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A Nice Reminder of Why We Moved Here

This past week, Bezalel's yeshiva, Tzvia Katif in Yad Binyamin, went on what they called a "gibbushon" - from the word gibbush, which means "bonding experience". He came back after the two-day trip tired, sweaty, and in terrific spirits. The trip was designed to honor the fallen soldiers from the six-day war. The boys walked and hiked at least twenty miles over the two days, slept in the open air (unless they brought a tent), spent time with their rabbanim, and ended up at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, where they ran a memorial program for the entire school. (Oh, and he also got a t-Shirt from the trip. Here in Israel, whenever a kid sneezes, they give them a commemorative t-shirt. Leah had an Ezra program this week, and came home with a t-shirt sponsored by a local framing shop. Go figure.)
The video is well done, and watching it (I couldn't find Bezalel) made me so happy that the school trips that my children benefit from are so rich in the essence of our people; they focus on the sacrifice of others, helping the boys grow closer to each-other, their teachers, and their nation. Watching the video (the background music doesn't hurt either), I am reminded yet again why we moved here.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

My First Tzohar Wedding

In a previous post, I described the meeting that I had with the secular couple whose wedding I was to officiate at as a representative of Tzohar. This week, I performed the wedding, which for me was a tremendous experience. I'll explain why.
The first thing that you realize immediately is that secular weddings, while they have much in common with religious weddings, are also quite different.  That became clear as soon as I arrived.
I actually came right on time, and made my way to the bridal suite to wish the bride Mazal Tov (and to let them know that I had indeed arrived.) Entering the room, two things struck me immediately. They had just finished a full meal, and were resting before the wedding, and the bride's dress - a strapless wedding gown - wasn't what I was accustomed to. We had discussed the matter of modesty during our meeting at my house, but I didn't remember what we had concluded, and while I tried to maintain a cool exterior, I wasn't entirely sure what to do. I quickly began to think of the stories that I had heard of Rav Soloveitchik conducting a chuppah with his head buried in a siddur. In fact, the kallah had "sleeves" that went with the dress, which she wasn't wearing it at the time. All worked out in the end.
On to the Chosson's Tish. Oh, that's right. There isn't one.
When I finally found the groom (who was practicing a song he had written for his bride with the band), he had to find the caterer, who was holding on to the Ketubah (which the couple picks up from Tzohar and brings to the wedding.) When we finally located him, he brought the ketubah and we sat down to fill out the necessary forms. The caterer kept pestering me about how long the chuppah would take. When I joked that my speech wouldn't be more than twenty minutes, he didn't laugh.
There is no Tenaim (which is a completely unnecessary ritual), so we sat down on some couches (and they pulled over a coffee table so that I could write) while I filled in the Ketubah and associated forms. We called the witnesses (friends of the groom's father), and they watched and waited while I filled in the Ketubah. It took about ten minutes. I had hoped to be able to do this on my own before everyone else showed up, but no luck. Nothing like trying to make small talk while filling in important halachic documents.
When I finished, the witnesses signed, we did a "kinyan" and that was it. Oh, sorry - the photographers then came by. So we did it all again so that they go their "shot." That actually happened a number of times. And they asked me to move out of the way during the chuppah so that they could video. ("Harav, you're blocking the shot!") And they yelled at me for having him break the glass before they were ready (so they made the groom stomp his foot again).
On to the Chuppah!
Like religious weddings, the groom and bride walked down to music that they had chosen - played by the DJ. But the bride had also recorded a beautiful message/prayer to the groom that they played as she walked towards the chuppah. It was quite lovely, and made me wonder whether religious weddings follow the "script" of what your "supposed" to do a bit too closely. Eventually they made their way to the chuppah, and we were ready to go.
Once there, I quickly realized that I had neglected a critical aspect of training to perform the wedding: juggling. Really. God blessed me with two hands, but I had to hold the cup of wine, the card with the brachot, and also the microphone. (when I held it too far during the first brachah, the video guy rushed up to me to tell me to hold it closer. "Harav - bkol ram!" Those who know me know that I usually don't have any trouble making myself heard.) I spent the rest of the chuppah spilling the wine, and moving cards, cups and the mike from hand to hand as I tried to navigate my way through the ceremony.
The rest went off like any other chuppah. I made the brachot. The couple drank. He gave her a ring. She took it. I read a bit of the Ketubah, and he gave it to her. (The photographer then had them hold it up together under the chuppah, grinning.) I said a short dvar Torah, which I hope went over well. Then we called up friends and family for the Sheva Brachot, and it was over.
The family was great. They really appreciated my being there and doing the wedding, and when the groom's father, who himself is religious, asked me whether he owed me anything, I felt wonderful telling him that he did not, and was happy to volunteer.
In truth, it's not a simple matter. Tzohar rabbis take no money for the weddings which they perform, and many people, while admiring the altruism, wonder whether it's really fair. After all, if the couple is paying tens, if not hundreds of thousands of shekels on everything else, from the food to the photographer to the video, why should the rabbi's time be free?
Thankfully, I'm in a position where I don't need to live off of performing weddings, so I was glad to perform the wedding as a chessed for the Jewish people. I feel that I'm helping (and interacting with) a population I would never otherwise meet, and came away enriched by the experience.
While I  was walking away from the chuppah, the groom's brother in law (who is also religious) came over and told me a wonderful Dvar Torah.
Why are we called "Yehudim" (Jews)? he asked me. The answer is because we come from the tribe of Yehudah. And Yehudah's mother gave him that name because she wanted to express her thanks to God for having a fourth son. Realizing that she was one of Ya'akov's four wives and that there would be twelve tribes, when she had her fourth son, she felt a great sense of thanks that she merited to have her "allotment" of sons. So she said, הפעם אודה את ה - "for this [child] I will thank God". We are called Yehudim (Jews) because we carry on this trait of giving thanks, and appreciate the goodness of others. 
"And that", he told me, "is why I'm thanking you for what you did tonight."
Driving away from the wedding, I kept thinking about my early rabbinic career in West Hartford, CT. It was an older shul and many of the members were senior citizens, and I came to know a funeral director in town who happened to also be a member. (come to think of it, that might be why he joined...but I digress.) I did a lot of funerals during those years, both of shul members and also of non-members. And while most brought in some money, I remember doing a few for free - and especially remember one for a lonely Jew who died without any friends or relatives. We buried him almost entirely by ourselves.
Driving away from the wedding last night, I couldn't help but think that while in America I did chessed by conducting funerals, here in Israel, I do chessed by doing weddings. I drove away feeling more Israeli than I have in a while; more connected to the country that I moved to over five years ago, but only now am beginning to give back to in a meaningful and important way. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Lech Lecha - Avram, Lot and the Danger of Money

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Lech Lecha - Avram, Lot and the Danger of Money

What was the underlying cause of the argument between Avram and Lot? What does their argument tell us about our own hopes and dreams?

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Friday, October 4, 2013

Non-Essential Employees

Imagine writing the following email to your boss:
Dear Boss,
Having noticed that the offices experiencing budgetary challenges, I have come to recognize that I don't need to work over the next several days. I reviewed my job position and responsibilities, and have concluded that my tasks are not really essential to the proper functioning of the office. So, I will be taking unpaid leave for an unspecified amount of time. See you when I get back!
Your Employee

Odds that your job would be there when you return? Minimal. After all, if you yourself don't think that your job is essential, how do you think that your boss should feel?
Now imagine receiving the following note:
Dear Employee,
Having reviewed our budget, we now recognize that we must temporarily suspend all employees that we consider non-essential. After studying your job position, we have determined that your job does not fit the "essential" description. We will let you know when economic conditions improve, and ask you to return to the office at that time.
Your Boss

I wonder: How would I feel if I received such a message? How would I take it to know that what I did was "not-essential"? It can't be a great feeling.
Isn't that just what the United States government is saying to eight hundred thousand of its employees?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Pew Poll and the Elephant in the Room

Dr. Jeffrey Woolf recently published a compelling piece on the recently released Pew Poll on the state of American Jewry and Judaism and its frightening results. It's not really that surprising, and merely confirms what everyone already knows: non-Orthodox Judaism cannot overcome the liberal values of Western society enough to ensure Jewish continuity. For that matter, much of Orthodoxy struggles with it as well.
Dr. Woolf accurately notes that stunning contrast between the American and Israeli Jewish communities, but at the same time, fails to note the "elephant in the room" that has preserved our people in exile for centuries. He writes,
I am, at the same time, thunderstruck by the stark contrast between the Pew Study, and the most recent Guttman/IDI Study of Israeli Jewry. The findings are almost symmetrical opposites. Israeli Jews believe in God (over 80%). There is a Jewish Renaissance (in Study, Culture, and Observance) in Israel that literally boggles the imagination (even as it confounds the usual definitions of Religious and Secular). And, while individualism and individual expression are certainly not absent, the sense of national cohesion, what we call bayachad, is movingly strong. Anyone, who lived here through the Second Intifada, or the various wars and campaigns since then will readily attest to this fact. All that my American brothers and sisters have so readily jettisoned, is held sacred by the Jews of Israel. No wonder that we speak so often at cross purposes. The two communities organize themselves around different value systems.
What he calls "beyachad" I call "anti-Semitism" and Jew-hating. I think that they go hand in hand.
Hapoel Akko Soccer Player Guy Dayan Celebrates a Goal with Shema and a Kippah
While American Jews enjoy an unprecedented period of freedom to live unmolested by their neighbors and the governments in which they reside, Jews in Israel have been the targets of constant and consistent threats that Dr. Woolf himself notes: "the Second Intifada, or the various wars and campaigns." Let's not sugarcoat things: over the past two decades we have endured a devastating campaign of suicide bombings, kidnappings of our soldiers - some of whom survived, some not; a summer of rockets at our northern cities, years of rockets and bombs at our southern cities (and in the last campaign, at Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv); the murder of families and children in their homes; the list goes on and on. It's not "Jewish" news. Here it's national news. And while it can get exhausting, it's a sacrifice to live here, and that sacrifice leads to a search for meaning, and has led to a desire to reconnect to Jewish roots and values. The signs of that reconnection pervade even secular Israeli society, from the celebrities who proudly keep Shabbat to the formerly secular movie stars (here too) to the soccer stars who celebrate goals by taking a kippah out of their sock to recite the Shema on the field.
Describe a Jewish community throughout Jewish history that didn't suffer anti-Semitism, and you'll be describing a community that no longer exists - as it assimilated into the broader culture.
Perhaps, then, the shift of anti-Semitism from Diaspora communities (I've read that Israelis now find Berlin a great place to live) to the Jewish State is indeed fitting. The nations of the world inherently sense the significance of Israel, and the diminishing role of Jewish communities around the world. They focus their hatred on the most powerful Jewish entity that exists at the time. While this trend portends short-term benefits for the Diaspora Jewish community (and long-term tragedy), it reflects a fact we already know: the center of the Jewish world has shifted to Israel, and the Jewish State now drives the Jewish agenda.
One "price" for this shift is the minimal to non-existent anti-Semitism felt in America, and the resulting fact that, to quote Dr. Woolf, "American Jewry is gently committing mass suicide through assimilation."

Audio Shiur: Parshiot Bereishit-Noach: The Attribute of Kayin According to Rav Kook

Audio Shiur:
Parshiot Bereishit-Noach: The Attribute of Kayin According to Rav Kook

Is there a common theme between the people of Migdal Bavel and Kayin? I think there is. From there we turn to Rav Kook's interpretation of what was wrong with Kayin's offering, as we study a long piece from Orot. Source Sheets here.

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Monday, September 30, 2013

Remembering My Bubby - Yehudis Friedman z"l

My uncle Zvi Friedman wrote the following yesterday about his mother (and my grandmother):
Today is the 32nd Yahrzeit of my mother יהודית בת הרב יצחק דוד ע"ה, Yehudis (Lichtenstein) Friedman also know as The Rebbetzin, Mommy and Bubby. My mother was a powerhouse of a woman - a real "Rebbetzin" from the old days. She would be in Shul every Shabbos making sure that the women knew where they were up to and leading the women in singing. Our house was always full of guests and there was always plenty to eat. She was active in the Sisterhood and Haddassah and all the things that an "Out of Town Rebbetzin" did. This was in addition to her raising 6 children and teaching pre-school and cooking and baking up a storm. She would collect clothing for the poor and sent tons of clothing to Israel for those who had nothing. There are generations of frum Jews because of my parents and their open home. My mother is missed by her 6 children and their spouses, 29 grandchildren, well over a hundred great grandchildren and now the start of the next generation - her great great grandchildren. Unfortunately most of her descendants never were zoche to meet her but anyone who did will never forget her. תהי זכרה ברוך.
I'd like to share a few personal thoughts that I remember about my grandmother - who died when I was all of nine years old, and yet I do remember her pretty well.

How to sweep the floor: One year, my parents took a vacation - I think to Israel, and my grandparents came down from Boston to take care of us. My grandmother thought nothing of handing me a broom and telling me to sweep the kitchen floor, which I proceeded to do, without much effect. She took the broom and explained that I was pushing too hard, and that if I wanted to sweep, I needed to do so gently. Later on I realized that while she was talking about sweeping the floor, the lesson she taught me applies to many other areas of life. Often, we move things far more effectively with a gentle sweep than with great force.

The Essential Importance of Jewish Education: For as long as I knew them, my grandparents lived in Winthrop, Massachusetts - as my uncle described - about as "out of town" as you can get. There my grandfather served as a shul rabbi for decades. Yet, my grandparents didn't always live in Winthrop. My grandfather's career began in Atlanta, Georgia (my mother used to have a southern belle accent, from what I'm told), where my grandfather served at Congregation Shearith Israel (you can read about a memorable Simchat Torah from Atlanta in the 1940s here.) Yet, my grandparents left a successful and growing pulpit in Atlanta, against the wishes of the community there, for Winthrop. It was not a move "up" in the rabbinic sense. Why did they do it? They moved for Jewish education.
The way my grandfather told me, he really didn't want to make the move - and I can well understand why. Yet, when my grandmother heard that Rabbi Soloveitchik had opened the Maimonides School in Brookline, the decision was made. They were moving - and so they did. And while her dedication and devotion certainly played a role in the fact that all of her children and grandchildren continue to follow in her footsteps and proudly live Orthodox lives, I believe it was that decision - her insistence that the family move to a city where her children would have to travel by subway on their own - but to a Jewish Day School - that made the critical difference.
It was a great sacrifice - both for her and for my grandfather. But it's a sacrifice that continues to pay divideds to this day.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sukkot: The Holiday of Fiction

Finally this summer, our shul got around to building the pergola that we’ve been planning for several years. We’ve needed a shaded space where people can congregate away from the main sanctuary and schmooze, and the pergola fits the bill perfectly. When the time came for Sukkot, the pergola seemed like a perfect shul Sukkah. The slats were built with Sukkot in mind (many wood pergolas are built that way now, with slats that slide into perforated grooves without being attached to the frame of the structure.) The only problem is the walls – or the lack of walls. Moreover, the contractor had built lovely wooden benches permanently in the ground exactly where the walls should go. What to do? Well, being that it’s Sukkot, we could build “fake” walls. That’s exactly what the rabbi did.

As you can see, he strung strings around the bottom perimeter of the sukkah forming “walls”, utilizing two halachic concepts concurrently. The first concept – “lavud”, posits that we consider strings, beams or posts within three tephachim (about a foot) of each-other to be “connected” which, for all intents and purposes, represent a solid structure. The second concept, called “gud asik”, teaches us that when wall reaches a minimum height of ten tefachim (forty inches about), an imaginary wall continues along the plane of the wall until it reaches the schach. Thus, the strings join together to form (an imaginary) wall, and the wall then rises to form (an imaginary) whole wall stretching to the ceiling. Voila! A Sukkah! Other similar halachot regarding Sukkah construction exist as well (Dofen akumah, anyone?)
It is no coincidence that Sukkot – the holiday which falls immediately after Yom Kippur -  involves a great deal of what we might call “legal fiction.” In fact, I believe that this legal fiction goes to the heart of what sitting in the Sukkah represents.
In a famous passage in Halachic Man (pp. 19-21), Rav Soloveitchik describes the manner in which the Halachic Man views the world. Instead of seeing the world as it is, he sees the world through the lens of halachic definitions. Everything he encounters is defined not by objective reality, but instead through the prism and lens of halachic paradigms.
When halakhic man approaches reality, he comes with his Torah, given to him from Sinai, in hand. He orients himself to the world by means of fixed statutes and firm principles. An entire corpus of precepts and laws guides him along the path leading to existence. Halakhic man, well furnished with rules, judgments, and fundamental principles draws near the world with an a priori relation. His approach begins with an ideal creation and concludes with a real one. To whom may he be compared? To a mathematician who fashions an ideal world and then uses it for the purpose of establishing a relationship between it and the real world, as was explained above. The essence of the Halakhah, which was received from God, consists in creating an ideal world and cognizing the relationship between that ideal world and our concrete environment in all its visible manifestations and underlying structures. There is no phenomenon, entity, or object in this Concrete world which the a priori halachah does not approach with its ideal standard. When halakhic man comes across a spring bubbling quietly, he already possesses a fixed, a priori relationship with this real phenomenon: the complex of laws regarding the halakhic construct of a spring. The spring is fit for the immersion of a zav (a man with a discharge): it may serve as mei hatat (waters of expiation); it purifies with flowing water; it does not require a fixed quantity of forty se’ahs; etc. (See Maimonides, Laws of lmmersion Pools, 9:8) When halakhic man approaches a real spring, he gazes at it and carefully examines its nature. He possesses, a priori, ideal principles and precepts which establish the character of the spring as a halakhic construct, and he uses the statutes for the purpose of determining normative law: does the real spring correspond to the requirements of the ideal Halakhah or not?
Halakhic man is not overly curious, and he is not particularly concerned with cognizing the spring as it is in itself. Rather, he desires to coordinate the a priori concept with the a posteriori phenomenon.
When halakhic man looks to the western horizon and sees the fading rays of the setting sun or to the eastern horizon and sees the first light of dawn and the glowing rays of the rising sun, he knows that this sunset or sunrise imposes upon him anew obligations and commandments. Dawn and sunrise obligate him to fulfill those commandments that are performed during the day: the recitation of the morning Shema, tzitzit, tefillin, the morning prayer, etrog, shofar, hallel, and the like. They make the time fit for the carrying out of certain halakhic practices: Temple service, acceptance of testimony, conversion, halitzah, etc. Sunset imposes upon him those obligations and commandments that are performed during the night: the recitation of the evening Shema, matzah, the counting of the Omer, etc. The sunset on Sabbath and holiday eves sanctifies the day: the profane and the holy are dependent upon a natural cosmic phenomenon - the sun sinking below the horizon. It is not anything transcendent that creates holiness but rather the visible reality—the regular cycle of the natural order.
To paraphrase the Rav, when halachic man looks at a Sukkah, he’s entirely uninterested in whether the structure is physically sound or not. Rather, his only concern is whether the building comprises a halachically valid Sukkah or not: Does the legal definition transmitted through the literature and tradition of halachah define the building as a Sukkah or not? It may very well be totally structurally unsound; a person could never live in it for very long. Yet, as long as it’s halachically a Sukkah, that’s all that really matters. It’s perfectly suitable for the mitzvah of yeshivah b’sukkah. We may add walls and decorations to assuage our sensibilities. Those elements may very well add to the beauty of the mitzvah. But, to halachic man, despite what we see with our eyes, if it’s a halachic Sukkah, that’s all that matters.
This, I think, is a critical element of the mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah.
We live our lives struggling to balance between the world we see - success, money, power – and the underlying spiritual rules that we believe truly matter: closeness to God, self-control, subservience, spirituality. In essence, what we see blinds us to what we know.
We work all year to allow what we know to guide us, even when the two contradict one-another. On the simplest level, we refrain from work on Shabbat because we know working on the day of rest cannot bring true prosperity – despite the fact that what we see with our eyes seems to indicate the opposite. On Yom Kippur, we rise to our highest spiritual level when we abandon, to the best of our ability, the physical world which we inhabit – of pleasure, food, drink, sexuality – for a spiritual existence guided by spiritual reality. And then Yom Kippur ends and we are forced to return to our homes, to eat, drink – back to life as we know it.
Sukkot, then, represents a kind of middle ground. It’s a time of great physical joy – of dancing and celebration and rejoicing, of eating and drinking, and socializing with friends. But at the same time, we do all of those things not in our physical homes, but instead in the phantom construct we call the Sukkah – whose rules are defined not by the world we see, and whether the building could in fact protect us from the elements. It could not. Instead, we take shelter in a structure defined by halachic rules and regulations.
In essence we declare, simply by sitting in the Sukkah, that at least for another week we wish to live our lives guided not by the eyes which too often fool us, but instead by the eternal strictures which have faithfully guided the Jewish people throughout history.